The Vietnam experience
By Abhijit Sen
10 May 2007
Many of the hypothetical fears about the conflict between agriculture and industry can be dispelled by a visit to Vietnam and a study of their methods in conditions very similar to those obtaining in West Bengal, says ABHIJIT SEN
The sudden outburst of Singur and Nandigram over land acquisition for industry has caught most people by surprise. After all, this was not the first time that land has been acquired for industry. Decades ago, when Bengal was the leading industrial state in the country, huge tracts of land had been acquired for mega projects like Durgapur Steel Plant, Alloy Steel Plant, expansion of IISCO, DVC projects, Farrakka, and so on.
Of course it can be argued that these projects were set up before land reforms, which gave peasants rights over the land they till. But even after land reforms many large industrial projects have come up on farmland. Examples are Dankuni, Haldia Petrochem, Haldia Refinery, Fritolay and Dabur factories in North Bengal and many more. Therefore, the attachment of peasants to their land after land reforms cannot be the main cause of the present troubles.
Threat to food scarcity is often cited as a reason for not setting up industry on agricultural land. Here again the fears seem unfounded. In the past two decades, in spite of conversion of land to industry without a hitch, West Bengal has emerged as the leading agricultural state in the country in rice, potatoes, fruits and vegetables.
It can be argued that modern industry is capital intensive and not labour intensive, and therefore the labour displaced from agriculture cannot be absorbed by industry. At first sight this seems to be a valid argument until we examine, for each square mile of land, how many people can be supported by employment in industry and commerce and how many can be supported by agriculture. This exercise will show that each unit of land can give maximum employment concentration in shops, offices, restaurants, software and BPO, then in industry and lastly agriculture. It must not be forgotten that agriculture is a land intensive activity and much more land is required to support a person in agriculture than in commerce or industry. A comparison of Burrabazar with Nandigram will illustrate the point. Nandigram is not the only place in the world where land has been sought to be converted from agriculture to industry. In practically every part of the world such conversions are taking place every day. How has this been achieved without riots and police firing?
It may be instructive to look at the experience of Vietnam. The land area of Vietnam and its population is almost the same as West Bengal. If anything the population density of Vietnam is somewhat higher. Like West Bengal, 70 per cent of the population of Vietnam is engaged in agriculture and in both places the principal crop is rice. The per capita income is also similar in both countries – if anything the per capita income in India is slightly higher. With so many similarities, is Vietnam facing a problem of acquiring agricultural land for industry? The answer is a resounding “NO”. New SEZs, industrial parks, software parks are coming up in huge numbers in Vietnam.
The author visited one park (out of many such) which employed 60,000 people and had exports of $ 1.3 billion. Another was dedicated to 600 Japanese companies. Industry in Vietnam is growing by leaps and bounds and the country is rapidly moving from its original agricultural base to become an industrial power house. This is not to say that agriculture is being neglected. From being a devastated famine stricken country at the end of the war, Vietnam has now become a leading food exporter. In fact, it is the world’s second largest exporter of rice, the very crop which is said to be most affected by conversion of land to industry.
Many of the hypothetical fears about the conflict between agriculture and industry can be dispelled by a visit to Vietnam and a study of their methods in conditions very similar to those obtaining in West Bengal. This state has very long and very close emotional ties with Vietnam. The cries of “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh” and “amar nam tomar nam Vietnam” still occasionally resound on the streets of Kolkata and one of the most important streets of Kolkata is named after the Vietnamese hero. However, we cannot just rest on past ties. The Vietnamese are practical people and while not forgetting the past, are more interested in the present and the future. In the past West Bengal has been in the vanguard in giving support to the Vietnamese war effort. However, it is a sad fact that the current material interchanges are almost non-existent. Now that West Bengal faces a continuing crisis over using land for industry, it is our turn to look to Vietnam for help in resolving the crisis. An intensive study of the Vietnamese methods by West Bengal delegations of both Left Front and opposition leaders will surely help in resolving the current impasse which is threatening to nip in the bud the nascent industrial revival in West Bengal.
Things should not come to such a pass in West Bengal where all progress is brought to a halt by a never ending face-off between the government and opposition over an issue which the Vietnamese experience shows is a non-issue. Our political parties must show a modicum of statesmanship in finding a solution to the problem, especially when an exemplary solution is available in a nearby country like Vietnam. (The author is former president of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce)
ABHIJIT GUHA’S REPLY
Areas where Vietnam scores over West Bengal
31 May 2007
Sir, ~ In the article, “The Vietnam experience” (10 May) Abhijit Sen has compared Vietnam with West Bengal in terms of their population, proportion of population engaged in agriculture, the principal crop produced and the per capita income. However, he has found one striking dissimilarity. According to him, Communist Vietnam does not face any problem in acquiring land for industries as is currently being encountered by the Leftist government in West Bengal. Further, by introducing SEZs, industrial parks, software parks and so on, Vietnam has been able to move out from its “original agricultural base to become an industrial power house.” The author also tells us that “Vietnam has now become a leading food exporter.” With due respect to Mr Sen who is a great captain of industry and commerce in Bengal, I would like to bring to his kind notice the following facts:
1) In 2002, the West Bengal government organised an international seminar on agrarian relations in which scholars from Russia, China, Vietnam and Cuba presented their papers and two noted economists VK Ramachandran and Madhura Swaminathan edited the published versions of those papers in a book entitled “Agrarian Studies: Essays on Agrarian Relations in Less Developing Countries”. The paper by the Vietnamese scholar, Noguen Tan Trin, depicted the condition of agriculture and the government policies in Vietnam from 1945 to the present period. His paper clearly reveals that land reforms and formation of agricultural cooperatives were the two major activities which helped Vietnam to achieve self-sufficiency in food crop and literacy. In West Bengal, according to government reports prepared by N Mukarji and D Banerjee (1993) and Jayati Ghosh (2000), let alone the cooperative movement, the process of land reforms became slow since the mid-1980s and landlessness began to emerge as an alarming trend! This is a major difference between Vietnam and West Bengal.
2) Another dissimilarity between Vietnam and West Bengal is the new land law which the former enacted in 1993. By that law, land belonged to the people and the government only had administrative control over it. The law also empowered individual and communal owner of land to give the land in lease to others for large-scale cultivation, social forestry, pisciculture and salt production.
The Vietnamese government is presently encouraging farmers to reclaim uncultivable land to form “ideal large farms” to avoid land fragmentation. At present, there are nearly 130,000 such farms in the country.
In 1994, the West Bengal government introduced the new industrial policy to invite huge capital-intensive investment and began to acquire fertile farmland without changing the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894. The failure to check land fragmentation through cooperatives in West Bengal is well known. The Jayati Ghosh report strongly recommended the formation of agricultural cooperatives.
3) In Vietnam, the government is targeting to bring down the number of persons engaged in agriculture to 50 per cent by 2010 through technological improvement in agriculture and not by large-scale land acquisition.
Additionally, in Vietnam there is a strong emphasis on expanding village-based cottage industries, agricultural marketing and services in the rural areas.
The West Bengal Leftists also had such plans and experts committees are still recommending such activities, but the government is paying all its attention to installing big industries and SEZ under the pretext of “successful land reforms”.
~ Yours, etc., Abhijit Guha,
Vidyasagar University, 11 May.
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
The Vietnam experience